Thursday, 26 June 2008

All Quiet on the Chicken Front

Out of sight, out of mind.

Since Ralph and Lauren have been confined to their chicken run, my children seem to have forgotten that we have chickens.

As I foretold, the care of these two chickens has fallen to me -- and it's not just physical maintenance either. Just as I must determine if my teenaged daughter should be allowed to take the train to Reading to wander aimlessly with friends, so must I negotiate an optimum balance of freedom vs. responsibility for the chickens.

After being allowed to run riot all over the garden for six months, it was unanimously decided (between the gardeners and myself) that Ralph and Lauren would have to be contained. Although it was obvious that they loved their freedom, it was also obvious that they were marauding brutes. As far as Colin, my gardener, was concerned, they were Genghis Khan reincarnated in the form of poultry -- and he just wasn't having it. The ambitious spring program of replanting and border-building did not allow for this unruly gang of two. Thus, a plan was formed: A chicken run, to be purpose-built by Colin, at the bottom of the garden.

I would just like to note that Colin -- who tends to be a bit of a "MaƱana" man when it comes to proposed projects -- came in on a SATURDAY, loaded down with lumber, to build this chicken run. After watching helplessly as the chickens dug up his flower beds for months, he was super-motivated.

Honestly, it's a really nice chicken run. It's spacious; it has shade from a large oak tree; it has all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. However, all of these "features" cannot disguise the fact that it looks and feels like a confinement. Sigmund, always ready with a (sadistic) quip that goes straight to the heart of the matter, delights in calling it "Chicken Prison."

I worked in the garden for hours today, and every now and then I approached the chickens with special treats, not unlike a peace offering: some snails, some bread crumbs, some carrot scraps. There would be Ralph -- waiting, always waiting -- quietly and forlornly at the fence. Lauren, still crazed by the broody desire to be a mother, was a no-show. Day after day, she sits on eggs that will never hatch.

My chickens, once free and frisky, have lost their mojo.

I can't help but feel a little like Gordon Brown.

In the name of the "greater good," UK citizens have experienced the erosion or downright loss of all sorts of civil liberties. CCTV cameras record our every move. Public smoking is banned. National ID cards and a DNA database are being proposed. In the efforts to curtail crime and thwart terrorism, we have all (presumably) agreed to give up aspects of our freedom and autonomy.

Yes, I have a cleaner, neater garden . . . but I do miss, just a bit, the wild and crazy antics of my chickens.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Post-Birthday World

I'm between books right now.

While that might not sound like a noteworthy event, it is an unusual occurrence for me. Usually I have two or three books on the go at any given time, not to mention various books-in-waiting.

Last week, post-Moonwalk and more than a little weary, I was wallowing in Lionel Shriver's latest: The Post-Birthday World. I finished it in the wee hours of Saturday night, even though we had returned home late from a 50th birthday party. Three days -- and I still haven't started a new book! Perhaps it is my way of paying homage, but I feel almost reluctant to begin another (probably less satisfying) reading experience

For the first time in a while, I experienced that incomparable pleasure of being totally sucked in to a fictional world. It really was one of those books-that-you-can't-put-down for me. Every chance I got (or took), I was sneaking chapters. I read while making a Red Velvet cake for my daughter's 14th birthday. I read while catching up with the washing and ironing. I got into bed early, in order to read; but then stayed up too late, because I couldn't stop reading. The characters intrigued me; the details delighted me; and the plot gripped me to the point that I could barely restrain myself from galloping through it as fast as possible. I would catch myself skimming, because I was so anxious to know what was going to happen . . . and then rereading, because there was so much to admire in the writing itself.

The book's plot (and philosophy, perhaps?) hinges on the idea that a single decision can make one's life spool in an entirely different direction. In this case, the decision is a kiss. Move in, or turn away? (Has anyone else been there before?) The protagonist, a Russian/American woman named Irina, has two possible destinies -- one with her long-time partner Lawrence, and another with Ramsey, casual friend suddenly turned into crush. In alternating chapters, the novel presents both scenarios -- and not only does the reader get to explore how the same incidents or details get played out in different ways, but also, inevitably, to judge which "choice" seems to be the better one. If you've ever read Shriver, you will know her to be a rather dark and complicated thinker -- nothing is ever simple. Because of the different possibilities, the novel actively engages the reader in a constant act of evaluation -- and then reevaluation. Instead of taking sides, the novel allows the reader to explore her (or his) own ideas and value systems. What is more important in a relationship: comfort or danger? Stability or excitement? Passion or friendship? Sameness or difference?

This idea has been explored before -- the movie Sliding Doors comes to mind -- but it is such a great plot device that I wonder why it hasn't been used more often. Without giving too much away, one of the ideas that Shriver plays around with is that of destiny. For instance, are certain aspects of our existence going to play out -- no matter which decisions we make along the way? And can we really turn away from the turning-points in our lives, or will they impact us no matter what? In other words, even total passivity is a choice that can directly impact the course of one's life. You can turn away from the kiss, but the desire still infects you -- and perhaps is just as powerful for being unfulfilled.

When I was in college, I can remember having to answer the question What do you fear? in a philosophy class. Only 20, with most of my life in front of me, I can remember my immediate answer: Regret. I fear choosing the wrong path. I am someone who is sometimes haunted (and sometimes just intrigued) by other lives and other possibilities. I am also someone who remains amazed by the idea that life can turn on a dime.

At 25, I agreed to meet my future husband on a blind date. I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend; I was supposed to be buckling down to my PhD program; I wasn't looking for a serious relationship at all. My first thought was No, but I was persuaded by the single detail of an English accent. As a lifelong Anglophile, the English aspect of this unknown man swung my decision. And that, as Frost said, has made all of the difference. Two years later I was married, pregnant, and living in England. But even if I had said No to this particular English man, would that part of me -- the part that yearned for a different culture than the one I was born into -- still have guided my destiny? It seems likely.

Shriver is an expatriate American, who has lived in London for many years. In a "Meet the Author" piece at the end of the novel, she describes her first babyish words for "I want out" as a sort of "running theme" in her life. I suppose that this compulsion is what leads people into lives which are really not their own. I think that it also may have quite a bit to do with writing (and reading, for that matter) . . . for what better chance do we have to escape ourselves, and inhabit someone else?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

My Moonwalk

Becky, Me, Karen and Judith (aka "Walking Partner")
We have just arrived at the event -- with four hours to go until official take-off.

Way back in the fall, when Walking Partner convinced me to train for the Moonwalk with her, I think that I secretly believed that the day would never come. Oh, sure I will walk 26 miles with you in the middle of the night. Sounds like fun!

As I look at this picture, I can clearly remember feeling gripped by anxiety -- despite the game smile. The four of us had caught an early flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh, done a bit of shopping, eaten a late lunch, attempted to nap, and finally made our way to the massive pink tent that served as official Moonwalk headquarters. From 8:30 pm to 11:30 pm, we had eaten vegetarian pasta, been treated to a neck and back massage, danced a bit of salsa, (well, that was just me), queued for the port-a-loos, and admired the creative genius and exhibitionistic daring of 12,000 women and men -- most of whom were wearing nothing on their top half but a decorated BRA. Flowers, ladybugs, fried eggs, birds in a nest, bagpipes, and numerous sequined and feathered concoctions were among the many interpretative possibilities. Overall, the display reminded me (once again) that I am one of the least creative and most cold-natured persons currently dwelling in the UK.

In case you weren't aware, the Moonwalk raises money for breast cancer research. Some bright spark lit on the clever idea of having the participants compete in their bras . . . a gimmick that certainly draws the crowds. Although we were wearing our bras throughout, I will freely admit that a t-shirt (and a hooded sweatshirt) covered my bra for the duration of the event. (Even in June, Scotland is COLD!) Only this picture preserves our brief moment of bra-very.

(Check out Becky's tan! That was from Sports Day!!)

By the time we actually started walking, just before midnight, we were feeling pretty cold and tired. Thankfully, a surge of adrenalin got us fired up again. (Truly it is impossible to explain the anticipation and excitement one feels when massed with so many costumed others.) At the very beginning, Judith and I "lost" Karen and Becky -- who had, shall we say, such a "laidback" attitude to the event that they were drinking pink champagne on approximately Mile 19. My competitive spirit, previously unknown to my Walking Partner, carried me through a great many miles. (I'm sorry to say that I took great pleasure in vaulting ahead of other walkers. Yes, I know that it wasn't really a race.)

Unobservant at the best of times, I retain only the vaguest sense of where we walked or what we saw. At times, the narrowness of the road, the darkness, and the crowded conditions meant that I kept my eyes mostly trained on whatever was likely to trip me up. At the darkest bit of the night, we walked around a great hilly mound and I remember seeing swans. It was rather eerie and peaceful -- quite a contrast to walking down the Royal Mile, where we were surrounded by cheering crowds on both sides. I was conscious of not giving very good value to the voyeurs, as I strolled by in my t-shirt, but happily we were walking by a young man who was a real crowd-pleaser -- and we benefited from his reflected glory. Not only was he wearing a bright pink wig, but he also had a sort of conical bustier (think Madonna on the Like a Virgin tour) which was adorned with flashing "fairy" lights. (Fairy lights would be the correct "technical" term here; I cast no aspersions on his character or sexual persuasion!)

Although I would have remembered this young man anyway, our brief acquaintance on Miles 4 and 5 blossomed into a walking partnership by Mile 15. At this point, he had lost both wig (scratchy!) and walking partner (bum knee), and so our duo become a trio. Named "Bayne" -- a family name, he assured us -- all I could think of was the obvious potshot of "you are the bane of my existence." Even chattier than I am, Bayne semi-annoyed WP by personally thanking every single volunteer who had showed up to cheer us on, hand out water bottles and warn us of oncoming traffic. Poor Bayne: He obviously felt that his life's objective was to defy the dubious legacy of his name! As one people-pleaser can certainly recognize the traits of another, I had nothing but sympathy for him. Also, he really made me laugh.

Bayne and I had an ongoing joke about "catching Bunny" -- and this bit of silliness carried us through most of the last 10 miles. The "Bunny" in question was wearing bunny ears, of course, and always seemed to be just ahead of us -- just out of our reach. Every time we threatened to catch up with her, she would start running to catch up with her own (really fast!) walking partner. It made us feel rather like greyhounds who can never quite catch the mechanical rabbit who spurs them on. The funny thing about Bunny is that she had quite a large backside, and it seemed to move in a rolling motion that was counterpoint to the rest of her body. (WP found it deeply mesmerizing.) When I offered up that Bunny had a lot of "junk in the trunk," I discovered that this particular bit of hip-hop lingo was a foreign language to my walking partners. Wherever you are, Bunny, I've got nothing but RESPECT for you.

My favorite bit of the walk was in the middle -- when we were walking down by the sea. The sun came up around 3:30 am, and it was so beautiful to see the streaky dawn sky reflected in the water. (As you can see, I've got my own "bunny tail" -- that crumpled silver ball is supposedly a high-tech blanket.)

The first 20 miles were relatively easy, so I was surprised to discover that the last 4 miles were, well, tortuous is a word that comes to mind. I felt like nothing but sheer willpower, Bayne's good natured joking, WP's consistent lead on me, and a small handful of peanut M&M's kept me going for the last hour.

Unfortunately, the last two miles of the walk were uphill and decidedly "urban" in smell and scenery. Our hotel was in the same insalubrious area, known as the "Pubic Territory" (Edinburgh's version of the Red Light District, apparently), according to our taxi driver. Although it was tempting to take the shortcut straight back to the hotel, we persisted to the finish line to get our "medals." WP figures that our official race time was 6 hours and 33 minutes. Quite respectable, really. Although we had to hobble back to the hotel, and stop briefly for me to heave, we were having toast and tea by 7 am. Coincidentally, it is the same meal that you are served after giving birth in the UK.

As with childbirth, it has taken me several days to feel normal again. Even though we found the energy to shop for several hours on Monday, and drink two of the most delicious margaritas I have tasted outside of Texas, I experienced a near total collapse yesterday. (Delayed reaction, perhaps? Or just my body's natural defense mechanism against the threatening piles of laundry and to-do list stuff?) However, I did manage a "gentle" walk of four miles or so this morning, and discovered that I have, indeed, recovered the full use of my limbs.

Just like I never thought that the walk would actually have to be walked, I now have a similar feeling of disbelief that I DID actually walk the walk. The whole experience feels rather surreal, actually. But then a lot of life feels that way . . .

I suppose that's why you get a medal. So you know you've been there.

Moonwalk postscript: The only blister I ended up getting was from that bloomin' bra!

Friday, 13 June 2008


I'm off to Edinburgh for the Moonwalk . . . (wish me luck!)

Thursday, 12 June 2008


I have a tendency to think of things as "fixed," even though I know they are not.

You would think that a person who moves every year or so would have a worldview that resembles constant flux, yet it is not so! Changes catch me unaware; change can still surprise me.

In the last week or so, relationships all around me seem to be undergoing changes . . . and I am reminded, again, that life is just one ongoing transition. Those famous lines of Yeats', "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," keep occurring to me. People die; marriages end; friendships fade; children grow up. All of our seasonal ritual, and all of our attempts to fix routines, are just flimsy, imperfect bulwarks against the inevitable encroachment of change.

On the weekend, one of my husband's "aunties" died. Not an aunt by blood, actually -- she was in fact "just" a neighbor and family friend, elevated to "aunt" status many years ago. Yet in every way, her connection to the family was unassailable. None of the (now middle-aged)children of the family could remember life without her. As a woman without children -- from the time when childless women "just got on with it" -- she had become a surrogate mother to the five rambunctious children who at times overwhelmed their own mother. She had offered food and a quiet place to study; she had replaced buttons and let out hems. In later years, roles reversed a bit and she became more taken care of than caretaker. Her place at the Christmas table was more consistent than that of any of the children. Every Friday, she came up for a shopping outing -- followed by tea. She was always there; always seemingly the same. Ninety when she died, Auntie V was a relic from a previous age. She never learned to drive, and her activities were confined to an almost rigidly circumscribed domestic sphere. Her attitudes, her beliefs, her topics of conversation, her stories, her clothing, her hairdo, even: all of these were fixed and unchanging. "Isn't she marvellous (for her age)," people would say. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, her conversation drifted from predictable to repetitive; her clothing, which always looked much the same, turned out to be the same outfit, worn over and over again. A nephew (her heir) took the decision to put her in a nursing home, and then she quickly declined. She seemed to be eternal, Auntie V; but of course she wasn't.

Isn't it strange how things can drift for awhile, before you properly notice? And then when you do notice, you realize how utterly they have changed.

I have an old friend in the area -- not so much an intimate as a fixture -- who I've socialized with for about ten years. When we moved back to England a couple of years ago, I sensed that something was not quite the same. She had lost a lot of her zest and sparkle. She seemed withdrawn, not just from me, but from all of our old crowd. Last week an unusual circumstance threw us together, and I guess that I probed a tender spot with the kind of direct question which sometimes disarms. She confessed that she was laying down plans to end her marriage. Years ago, as fairly new parents, we had met. She and her husband seemed so close then. Convivial and generous to a fault -- the champagne was, literally, always flowing -- they seemed so simpatico. But apparently they have been drifting for a long time now, and not even anger remains. Just indifference on her part, and unkindness on his.

Once you get to a certain place in a marriage, it seems like all of that accumulated experience should add up to an insoluble bond. And yet it doesn't; not always.

On Monday, a friend confided in me that her little son was experiencing his first heartbreak. "Daisy" had been his best friend since the first day of school, and she had given him a reason to want to go to school -- a place that he otherwise associated with unhappiness and frustration. For months they had been inseparable, but then -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- she began making new friends. The tighter he clung, the more she wanted to get away. He had developed a sort of fixation with Daisy, and she had eventually withdrawn from him. Maybe it was nothing personal. Maybe it was nothing more than discovering that she was a "girl" and he was a "boy," and that in the world of six year olds they could not have the same interests or loyalties. But whatever the reason, his innocence has taken a knock. Being rejected for the first time has opened his eyes to the sometimes harsh world of social interactions.

We are all obsessed with romantic love, but friendship love can die, too, and it can hurt just as much. The expression "fast friends" implies a bond that is fixed firmly in place, but I've also noticed that friendships which are fast in the sense of forming quickly and intensely have a tendency to fade. I try to keep all of my friends, but some friendships have eluded me. Once or twice in my life I've had a friend who withdrew from me and I never quite knew why. Was it something I did? Or was I just incidental -- just in the way of someone who was undergoing changes?

As my teenaged daughter has put together her "list" for her 14th birthday party I cannot help but notice how much it differs from last year's list. As she tries on different identities, as she moves up the ladder of "popularity," the friendships seem to come and go. Last year she was new to the school and happy to be friends with (almost) anyone who befriended her. This year she is more selective. Last week I took her and a friend to a concert for her birthday treat. In their navy school uniforms, pony-tailed and fresh-faced, they look like young girls. But clothing and makeup can utterly transform, and this new vampy young woman is a stranger to me. How did she learn how to put on eye makeup? Where did she learn those dance moves? As young teens all around me swayed to the Jonas Brothers' insipid music, and sang along with Avril Lavigne's rather strident voice, I felt as mumsy and old as I never thought I could or would be. When did concert music get so loud?

When my children were younger, I derived a more (shall we say) genuine pleasure from doing the things that they wanted to do. But as they have established their own independent lives, so have I . . . and now I notice that I am more grudging about sacrificing my interests and likes for theirs. As I trudged around Legoland yesterday on my youngest daughter's school trip, I couldn't help but reflect that I am more conscientious than enthusiastic about dispatching certain parental duties. I freely admit that I do not like "amusement" parks. I do not want to pay a lot of money to (mostly) stand in line in order to eventually be made nauseous or bored. And that is the high point! Never mind the long drive to get there, the crowds, the bad food, the inevitable whining and tiredness (both mine and the children's). The last time I went to Legoland was seven years ago. It was cold and wet, and the three year-olds were too young to ride anything. I mostly remember sitting in a canteen, feeling miserable, and trying to clean up the hot chocolate that my toddler had spilled over her last change of dry clothes. On this visit, the toddler had turned into a tall and fearless girl who actually found most of the rides a bit babyish and "lame." As we left the theme park, it occurred to me -- and it was a most happy thought -- that perhaps my Legoland days were over. Not all changes are bad, after all.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Sports Day Report . . . and some more cookies

I spent approximately 7 1/2 hours at my youngest daughter's Sports Day today.

While I have been to versions of "sports day" (in other words, competitive races between school children requiring parental attendance) all over the world, Sports Day in England takes the biscuit. First of all, it takes place on a Saturday -- a day that many people mistakenly feel should be given over to the leisure activity of their choice. Second, it requires sartorial decision making that must span the challenges of both weather and fashion. Thirdly, it involves competitive picnicking, drinking and tent-building -- should you be so inclined. (For more on this, you might enjoy reading multitude -- who attends the same Sports Day that I do.) Fourth, it requires the endurance usually only needed for weddings that have lengthy outdoor receptions peopled by (mostly) strangers.

Poor Sigmund; he hates Sports Day.

Last year, my oldest daughter's birthday fell on Sports Day -- and, oh, what a shame . . . but I had already booked theatre tickets! While I was swanning around London, with several of my dearest friends in the world, poor Sigmund had to accompany little daughter to the dreaded event. To make a bad thing worse, it was drizzling. And cold. And he didn't know anyone -- as he had been living in Holland. He coped as best he could, but several people brought back tales that he had been discovered sleeping in the back seat of our car!

This year I gave Sigmund a pass -- and he just showed up for lunch, which was somewhat tolerable for him, if not wholly enjoyable. Even so, he did ask this (rhetorical, I believe) question: Does anyone really like Sports Day?

Well . . . actually, yes they do.

According to my close observation, the people who like Sports Day are (generally) the people whose kids are good at sports. Unsurprisingly, as athletic ability is bred in the blood and the bone and perhaps even the badgering attitude, the people whose kids are good at sports are usually rather sporty themselves. These sporty people understand what is going on -- not only that, but they find it intrinsically interesting and entertaining.

Needless to say, as fairly unsporty sorts, Sigmund and I spend a lot of time wandering around aimlessly between the various spread-out events and are usually chatting when anything exciting occurs. If I were to enter the Mother's race, (which I wouldn't, under any circumstance), I would probably be like the poor soul who (1) fell down, and (2) starting losing her skirt, which managed both to slip down and gape open, and (3) ahem, "popped out" of her blouse -- thus exposing herself on all fronts. Worst of all, perhaps, she came dead last. As for Sigmund, he left sporting humiliations in the graveyard of his childhood memories -- a place to which he does not plan on returning.

I can like Sports Day, but only under specific conditions. Specific weather conditions. If the weather is sunny, but not hot, breezy but not windy, I can enjoy even an epic outdoor activity. But mess with this balance, and I become what the English hate above all things: a moaner.

Earlier tonight I was reading an article which mentioned neurasthenia -- and I wondered if there was some similar mental/physical condition which explains an oversensitivity to weather. Unlike most of the English, who seem impervious to the weather, I am hugely sensitive to its vagaries. Until today, I had carried a dread of the "Sports Day" fixture on the annual school calendar. But until today, I had never experienced a sunny Sports Day.

In the sparkling sunshine, Sports Day seemed charming. The headmaster in his blue blazer looked dapper. The many dogs frolicking on the field were positively adorable. The long queue at the (free!) ice cream truck seemed like a good way to bide one's time. Hour after hour of clapping and shouting "Well Done!" was quite pleasant. In fact, the only bad thing that I can think of is that someone left out the chocolate chip cookies and they melted in the sun.

So with that brief segue, I move on to a recipe for Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, as per Debski's request -- and with a bit of commentary, of course.

Cream together:
8 oz butter
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla.

Add two eggs, beating well after each addition.

Sift together:
2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating until just combined.

Stir in 2 cups of chocolate chips and 1 cup of chopped pecans or walnuts -- but obviously, this last step can be modified to suit your tastes.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 9 -11 minutes at a 375F/190C oven.

This is the Tollhouse recipe -- taken directly from the back of the Nestle semi-sweet morsel wrapper. (An imported good which I try never to be without.) For those English people who do not have the opportunity to visit the U.S. and bring back chocolate chips and Crisco sticks, I offer some good news: Marks & Spencer has just started offering a "plain chocolate chip" which has proven to be darn close to the original. So far it is the best chocolate chip I've managed to encounter in the UK.

A few more words on chocolate chip cookies: When I was a child, we made these cookies with Crisco (vegetable shortening) instead of butter. People used to fall into two different camps when it came to baking, and to this day my mother knows which of her friends prefer a "butter" chocolate chip cookie and which swear by substituting Crisco. In my considered opinion, the BEST chocolate chip cookie is made with 4 oz of butter and 4 oz of Crisco. Butter for taste, and Crisco for texture.

I think that you would approve of this slight amendment to the original recipe, Debski, as I know that you are a person who appreciates a bit of this and a bit of that. I'm not sure how you feel about Sports Day, but I bet that I can make a pretty good guess.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Sugar Cookies for a Rainy Day

When I am tired, when it has been raining all day, when it feels more like October than June, I find solace in baking cookies.

Rain. Depression. Happiness. Low blood sugar. A diversion for the children. Birthday parties. Picnics. Holidays. Boredom. These are all good reasons to make cookies.

Yesterday, as I was tutoring, the small boy in my care piped up: "You ALWAYS have cookies at your house." It was clear, from the expression on his face, not to mention the crumbs on it, that he thoroughly approved of this consistency. I'm not ashamed to admit that I know the "bribing" (shall we just say encouraging) power of a warm, homemade cookie.

A cookie is intrinsically cheerful; and the good vibes are at least doubled if it is a homemade cookie. (But that is just my bias, and I don't actually have any scientific data to prove it.)

A crazy cookie maker like myself will even manufacture events -- in order to justify making LOTS of cookies. This Friday, I am hosting an all-day "tea" (for want of a better word) to raise funds for the "Walk the Walk" charity. This event has provided me with the perfect excuse to bake lots of cookies . . . not that I needed one! Next month, I will make hundreds of roll-out sugar cookies for the 4G booth for the Summer Fete. (A cookie decorating booth: My idea, of course.) In the last two days I've made sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies and cashew cookies. The latter are only for my family, as Walking Partner thinks that I should pay homage to the ubiquitous nut allergy that plagues us. Therefore, I need at least one more kind of cookie! Hmmmm . . . what could be more delicious than thinking about what kind of cookie to bake next?

I realize that there are people who don't bake/can't bake/won't bake . . . but I "comprehend" this imperviousness to the charms of baking without actually understanding it. Just like I know that there are people who don't like dessert . . . or people who don't comfort eat . . . and I don't really get that, either. I can admire these people for their abstinence; I can respect them; but in my secret, innermost self I tend to think that they are either (1) LYING, (2) strange, or (3) sad people who are missing out on one of life's best and most consistent pleasures.

For me, cookies are the most perfect baked good because they are (generally) really easy and (usually) provide instant gratification. Some people don't even wait to cook them before sampling their charms. (I'm not naming names, but let's just say I regularly stare the threat of salmonella in the face -- and so do my children.) In fact, cookie dough is to sushi as cookies are to baked fish: for those who love it, better "raw." I have been know to make chocolate chip cookie dough just to mix it into vanilla ice cream. I'm not alone in this strange behavior, either: I once knew a woman who claimed that the "secret ingredient" in her chocolate chip cookies was her own spit! (I know, you might be saying "eeww" or "ick," but I thought that it was pretty funny!)

(There are exceptions to the instant gratification angle: gingerbread cookie dough, for one example, needs to be chilled overnight. This can be either a positive or a negative -- depending on one's organizational skills.)

Unlike baked goods that require yeast (bread) or whipped egg whites (meringue) or kneading (bread) or gentle handling and cold butter (pastry) or precise cooking temperatures (cake), cookies are really forgiving. In fact, I believe that if you have good equipment -- meaning a decent mixer, proper baking sheets, and silicone mats -- you can hardly go wrong with cookies. You just have to figure out if you are a "chewy" cookie person or a "crisp" one, and judge your cooking time accordingly. Some people like a brown cookie; others prefer a paler, underdone version. It is also helpful to have someone around who likes the opposite of what you like -- because even with a good timer, cookies aren't always perfectly predictable. They are, however, almost always edible.

Recently, a dear friend asked me to contribute to a cookbook that she is putting together for her daughter's 21st birthday. After wracking my brains over the PERFECT recipe, I realized that I should just go with something that my family has made over and over again . . . something that is easy, always delicious, and part of the history of our family life. It is just a very simple sugar cookie -- cheap to make, and containing "standard" ingredients. (Okay, "standard" if you bake maybe . . . but still, certainly nothing fancy!) When I got married, my mother put a cookbook together for me -- and of course this recipe was in it. We can't have Christmas without these cookies -- and I make them even more than my mother did. Anyone who has ever attended one of my children's birthday parties has probably eaten these cookies. In fact, when I moved back to England I had a Christmas lunch for some old friends, and one of them said, "I remember these cookies!"

Sugar Cookies

Cream together:
4 oz butter
4 oz Crisco (or similar veg shortening; this is necessary!)
1 cup sugar

When creamy and fluffy add:
1 large egg

Sift together (or just add if you’re feeling lazy or time-pressed)
2 ½ cups flour
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt

And then mix with butter mixture.

Finally, add:
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp milk

Drop by spoonfuls (about walnut size) onto greased cookie sheet. (Silpat nonstick mats are very helpful, if you have them.)
Flatten (gently) the cookies with a glass dipped in sugar. (Dip the glass into the cookie mix first, to make it sticky enough for the sugar to cling.) Then decorate the cookies with sprinkles of your choice – OR, a whole pecan (my favorite).

Bake at 400 f./200 c. for 8 – 10 minutes. They should be barely brown at the edges, but I also like them slightly underdone.

My family almost always doubles this recipe – as they freeze beautifully, and also keep nicely in a tin for at least a week or two. (They are actually delicious straight out of the freezer!)

They are perfect with a cup of tea, coffee, or milk! They are sweet, but slightly salty; not too plain, but not too rich. For me, they are "just right" . . . especially if there is just too much rain, and some small comfort is needed.